New Orleans reminds me of a cat with nine lives. It has survived so many disasters and the city rises today upon layers and layers of its historical past. The residents of New Orleans love their unique city and revel in its supernatural atmosphere. Ghost tours are a popular pastime and guides relay tales and legends so whole-heartedly, it was impossible not to get caught up in the dark world woven around you. I don’t pretend that the following tales are 100% fact, but are very entertaining and at least in part based on real life. So sit back with a glass of liquor on a bar porch. Hear the melody of jazz and laughter drifting through the heated air and enjoy some tales of New Orleans most famous residents.
The Casket Girls
In the eighteenth century, a group of young women were ushered from a ship docked in New Orleans’ port and to the convent that would be their home until they were ready to wed. Each girl had a coffin shaped chest that contained all of their belongings. The women’s pale skin start a spark of rumours about the mysterious newcomers.
In the time that followed more strange happenings occurred. After a string of mismatched marriages and mis-treatment of the women, all were ordered to return to the convent. The nuns went to retrieve the stored caskets from the top floor to discover them all to be empty and the belongings were never recovered. The windows were nailed shut and the doors locked. Nonetheless, stories echoed through the streets of window shutters flapping in the wind and shadowy creatures crawling on the convent rooftop at night. “Vampires” and “cursed”, they said.
Some believe the casket girls were the ones that brought vampires to New Orleans. While I love the idea, in reality these women were chosen by Bishops to be married to french colonists who paid for their passage from France to New Orleans. The nuns educated and cared for the girls until they were ready for marriage in their new home. The casket or “casquette” baskets were the equivalent of a holdall in today’s world.
The table laid for a ghost
Muriel’s Jackson Square is a local restaurant in the French quarter of New Orleans, located on grounds where centuries of dark history and supernatural occurrences have taken place. Pierre Jourdan was one of the building’s past owners.
Restoring the estate to its grandeur after a fire ravaged the French Quarter, Jourdan lived here with his family until he lost the house at an ill-fated game of poker. Heartbroken and downtrodden by the loss of his beloved home, Jourdan took his final steps and ended his life on the second floor. His spirit is said to have joined those of slaves, in an area now known as the Seance Lounge.
The second floor is known as the most likely place to see one of the resident spirits due to its unhappy past, but other areas are affected too. Staff reported glasses and bottles of wine smashing into walls of their own accord. Ghostly shimmers of light have been seen with knocking on the walls and voices often heard by diners and staff. The owners at Muriel’s lay a table every day with bread and wine to welcome their ghostly guests, especially that of Jourdan whose life and legacy shaped the building that is Muriel’s today.
Stories of the LaLaurie mansion
Ask any local about the LaLaurie Mansion at 1140 Royal street and they will know a story or two. For almost 200 years the allegedly cursed house has remained at the centre of most ghost tours in New Orleans and a hub of paranormal activity. Delphine LaLaurie purchased the house in 1831 as a family home for herself and children and third husband, Leonard LaLaurie.
Delphine’s life at the mansion was not a happy one. With reports of long arguments between husband and wife and the death of a servant girl Leia who fell from a window, rumours stirred about the LaLaurie’s life behind closed doors. In 1834, a fire broke out from the kitchen, said to be started by a slave chained to the stove and kept in terrible conditions. As fighters rushed to save those in the house, they heard cries for help coming from behind a locked door.
Breaking in, the men stopped in shock at what they found. Slaves in the most appalling conditions, chained and tortured in brutal ways. A wooden box was found to contain a man whose limbs had been broken and set into unnatural shapes to fit the space. Another chained with eyes removed and mouth sewn shut. Yet more with knife wounds and burns. All were starved and living in their own filth. As the slaves were brought out, Madame LaLaurie fled in secret, never to be seen again. The house was ransacked by the angry townspeople and left empty for years.
Since then, many owners have come and gone. Stories of footsteps in the night and scatches inflicted on residents emerged and none remained at the mansion for longer than a few years. Reports of screams and shouting coming from the house continue. Street lights flicker on and off at the mention of the servant girl Leia. While some of the truth has been greatly exaggerated in recent times, the treatment of slaves in this house by Madame LaLaurie was extremely poor. The conditions may well have resulted in death for some. As for the little servant girl, we may never know her true story.
The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans
Marie Laveau is crowned as the Voodoo Queen of Louisiana and much mystery surrounds the practitioner with little substantiated as fact. A supposed practitioner of Voodoo throughout her years, Marie was a hairdresser by trade to many of the wealthiest citizens of New Orleans in the 1800s. A mother to many children and a daughter of faith, Marie Laveau was a devout Catholic follower and was known for using her magic and belief to help those in need. It is thought that Marie’s Catholic family beliefs combined with those of voodoo practice passed down from the elders of African arrivals in the city.
Marie began offering spiritual advice and selling luck charms at markets and Sunday gatherings where Voodoo followers would meet. Rumours of ritualistic ceremonies, orgies and animal sacrifice spread throughout the streets. Her following gained momentum. Marie is documented as leading the celebrations for St John’s Eve, where rituals of communal bathing, eating and dancing by firelight took place. Today, St John’s Eve continues for the practicing Voodoo community in New Orleans and coincides with Midsummer’s Eve and Summer Solstice celebrations in other parts of the world.
In recent times, Marie’s Voodoo origins have been portrayed in a much darker light, with Laveau characters taking on unpredictable, villanous traits. But when so little is truly known about Marie, it seems unfair to paint a generous women of faith with such a colourful brush. Or perhaps, that is precisely what the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans wanted us to think….
There are no shortage of ghost walking tours to be found in New Orleans but they do get booked up quickly. My tip is to do your research and book your tour in advance.
While researching the real life stories for this piece, I found some brilliant books on Haunted America and New Orleans. Check out some of my favourites on Amazon below: